Can I Just Have a Quick Word?

“Can I just have a quick word?”9 min read

A Story of Autism and Employment.

By Quinn Dexter of Autistamatic

It’s a sen­tence that strikes dread into the heart of almost everyone in the work­place. Autistic people in employ­ment, even those who are undi­ag­nosed and unaware of why they are dif­ferent, hear it more than most.

Often it’s fol­lowed by, “We need to talk about your per­for­mance,” “You’re not fit­ting in very well,” or “There’s been a com­plaint.” All too often that “quick word” is the first step on a journey towards unem­ploy­ment.

It is illegal for an employer in the UK to allow someone’s autism, or any other neu­ro­log­ical char­ac­ter­istic, to influ­ence an employ­ment deci­sion. The same applies to gender, sex­u­ality, ethnic origin, reli­gion, dis­ability and a number of other “pro­tected char­ac­ter­is­tics” cov­ered by The Equality Act 2010.

Any employer proven to exhibit a clear sign of prej­u­dice is liable to pros­e­cu­tion under the act; how­ever, whilst it is illegal, it is not con­sid­ered crim­inal. The worst an employer can expect for their trans­gres­sion is a fine and a rep­ri­mand.

Companies and the staff respon­sible are at no risk of suf­fering any sub­stan­tial sanc­tion such as cus­to­dial sen­tences. They can pay their modest fine & at a push some token com­pen­sa­tion to the person they wronged then go back to busi­ness as usual.

Justice

Seeking jus­tice for dis­crim­i­na­tion is an uphill struggle. It can be very dif­fi­cult to get Legal Aid. It’s income-based and usu­ally only par­tially covers costs. Whether it’s dis­crim­i­na­tion at the appli­ca­tion stage or wrongful dis­missal, such cases are not con­sid­ered crim­inal and one is still expected to pay for the ini­tial legal con­sul­ta­tions.

The out­come of the case is far from opti­mistic, too. Most com­pa­nies retain spe­cialist lawyers to fight in their corner, and since the burden of proof is on the person dis­crim­i­nated against, there are any number of well-worn excuses the victim must dis­prove.

They may claim that autism was not a factor in their deci­sion because there were better appli­cants, a lack of “align­ment with [their] com­pany cul­ture,” or failure to demon­strate some intangible-but-vital per­sonal attribute.

Providing the real reason for rejec­tion was only given ver­bally (if at all), and there were no wit­nesses (or only wit­nesses who toe the com­pany line). Then, there is next to nothing the victim can do to win the case. No wonder that the number of cases brought is piti­fully low.

Personal Stories

I’ve gath­ered many per­sonal sto­ries whilst researching the employ­ment chal­lenges of other autistic people, but few have illus­trated the unbri­dled prej­u­dice facing autistic people in employ­ment quite so starkly as the story told to me by Lewis (a pseu­donym).

Lewis was 19 when he was offered a job by a large UK com­pany. It was a low waged, manual role, but as is increas­ingly common among larger employers, he had to attend an unpaid ori­en­ta­tion and induc­tion course before he started.

He trav­elled a long dis­tance, and basic accom­mo­da­tion was pro­vided for the nights he would stay over. His travel expenses were to be repaid in his second month’s wages. Following advice from a career advisor, he’d been careful not to men­tion being autistic on his appli­ca­tion or at his inter­view.

Diversity & Inclusion

On the second day, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the pro­ceed­ings were devoted to the company’s “Mission Statement,” with par­tic­ular atten­tion to their Diver­sity & Inclu­sion Policy.” The com­pany rep, a tall, dark-haired woman, went into great detail about their enlight­ened atti­tude to race, gender, and sex­u­ality.

One of the other new employees present chose to men­tion that they were gay during the ses­sion and how his last employer had failed to be sup­portive when they were needed. They were point­edly told how wel­come they were and how valued they would be as a member of the team.

Nobody would turn their backs here. Everybody would be judged by their per­for­mance and their team spirit, not by any­thing else. Lewis chose at this point to come for­ward and dis­close that he was autistic.

The ini­tial reac­tion from the com­pany rep and the rest of the group was ner­vous laughter, which puz­zled Lewis. Why laughter? When the pre­vious employee had men­tioned they were gay, the rep had led the small group in a gentle round of applause. He thought he must be missing some­thing and tried to laugh along.

“It’s true, I’m… autistic. Well, Asperger’s actu­ally, but it’s the same thing”

The rep frowned at him…

…a slight smile still hov­ering on her lips.

“Seriously? I don’t under­stand?”

“I’m autistic,” repeated Lewis. “I have autism. It’s really good that you guys are so accepting of people being dif­ferent. Not everyone is.”

“Sorry– you’re absolutely sure about that, err…Lewis? A hun­dred per­cent? I need to be really cer­tain you mean what you’re saying.”

“Yes,” Lewis replied. “I found out when I was 8. I got really depressed after my Mum died, and the doctor I went to told me I was on the autism spec­trum.”

The rep looked wor­ried for a moment, then took her phone out of her pocket. “I have to make a quick call. You all take a break. You know where the coffee machine is,” and left the room.

About 20 minutes later…

The rep came to the door and beck­oned Lewis out into the cor­ridor.

“Can I just have a quick word?”

She led them both to a smaller room and asked Lewis to sit down as she leaned back against the wall, arms folded.

“Lewis, I’m going to have to ask you to go back to the hotel, pick up your things, and go back home. We can’t con­tinue with your induc­tion.”

He was stunned. He’d been without a job since leaving school over a year ago and was over the moon to be there.

“What’s… what’s hap­pening?” he asked, as he slowly started to rock, back and forth, wringing his hands between his knees.

“Just look at yourself…”

“…This is what we’re con­cerned about– you’re wob­bling all over the place. You didn’t tell us you were men­tally unstable when you applied. There’s laws about that sort of thing, insur­ances we have to pay if we employ someone who’s men­tally unpre­dictable, lia­bil­i­ties. Think about the risk to other employees, to cus­tomers. What if you hurt someone?”

Lewis just stared back, tried to argue, but his words stuck in his throat. Speech was lost to him. He started to shake his head as his rocking became more pro­nounced, and he started to keen. He knew he was heading towards shut­down as the rep con­tinued.

“Look I’ve been on the phone to our HR and legal depart­ment, and they’ve told me that if you don’t go qui­etly, we’ll have to pros­e­cute. You’ve lied to us on your appli­ca­tion. You didn’t tell us about some­thing that could be a risk to the company’s rep­u­ta­tion… and other staff, too. That’s illegal. It’s like trades descrip­tions you know – you’ve falsely adver­tised your­self as some­thing you’re not, and they can’t allow that. You’ve taken us for mugs. Be a good lad and just get your things and go home.”

“But….” Lewis man­aged to sputter.

“No buts, young man. My hands are tied. It isn’t down to me. This is the law. Either you go home qui­etly, or the com­pany takes you to court– and you know where that could lead, don’t you? This is very, very serious.”

By now Lewis was helpless.

He could still see and hear every­thing that was going on, but he couldn’t react. His shut­down was almost com­plete. Tears were streaming down his face, but there were no sobs.

He just con­tinued to rock, shake his head, and keen. How could they call him a risk? He hadn’t hurt anyone in his life. He’d never even had a melt­down like those he knew some autis­tics could go through. When he was over­loaded he always shut down, just as he was doing then.

The rep stood watching him for a moment longer then stepped for­ward.

“Look, I don’t know why you’re making such a big fuss or what you expect me to do about it. It’s out of my hands, and you brought this on your­self. You tried it on but you got caught out, so take it like a man. I’ve got a room full of people waiting for me back there, so I’m going to have to leave you to pull your­self together. You’ve got until four o’clock to leave, get your things, and go home. Make sure you give your key-card back to the recep­tion desk on your way out. I’m sorry you forced us to do this.”

Eventually…

…Lewis man­aged to calm him­self enough to get to the train sta­tion and then back home. He never went back to the hotel to pick up the couple of things he left behind. His moti­va­tion to find work has been at an all time low ever since.

He knows he should be pro­tected by law, and he’s fully aware that the threats of pros­e­cu­tion were empty words. There is no legal oblig­a­tion to dis­close autism to an employer at any stage. He also knows that if he took it fur­ther, it would be the word of an expen­sive com­pany lawyer against his.

Everything was done ver­bally and away from wit­nesses. As far as the other new employees were con­cerned, Lewis just left the room and never came back. We’ve no idea what they were told, nor if they’d even cor­rob­o­rate that it all started when he men­tioned his autism. They all laughed along with the com­pany rep after all. They were part of the problem.

Would the com­pany rep have taken the action she did if the others hadn’t laughed along with her? We can’t even say for sure that the rep even made the phone calls she spoke of. Did her HR depart­ment know what hap­pened, or did she act purely out of her own prej­u­dice?

Too many ques­tions remain unan­swered for Lewis to ever be able to write it off as a bad expe­ri­ence and move on. He never even got the cost of his train ticket paid back to him.

Lewis’s story is not unique…

But such extreme dis­re­gard for the law is uncommon, an over-the-top case of an igno­rant cor­po­rate employer hiding behind their legal muscle to flout the law or the raw ani­mosity of a com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tive exploiting their posi­tion.

It is, how­ever, a stark indi­cator of the broader trend towards treating autistic people as a risk factor or even unem­ploy­able. From clan­des­tine sab­o­tage to overt prej­u­dice and bul­lying, the chal­lenges facing autistic people at work are many and var­ious.

There are some employers begin­ning to under­stand that autistic and other neu­ro­di­ver­gent employees can be assets. A number of tech­nology com­pa­nies in par­tic­ular are actively working on pro­grams to improve their neu­ro­di­ver­sity. However the pace of change is glacial, and it is too slow to make a dif­fer­ence for people like Lewis.

The blunted teeth of the law means the only hope for young people like Lewis, not to men­tion the mil­lions of other adults in– or hoping to join– the work­force lies in erad­i­cating the harmful nar­ra­tive around autism.

Everything we do to stamp out the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of autistic people, that which is char­ac­terised only by deficit, that sug­gests we are func­tion­ally com­pro­mised or even a risky propo­si­tion, is a step towards jus­tice for Lewis and others like him.

Nobody should ever be treated the way Lewis was. As long as legal redress without finan­cial burden and sig­nif­i­cant dis­tress to his remaining family is out of reach, we are left with no choice but to fight on Lewis’ behalf.

Change will come, and only a united autistic com­mu­nity can make it happen.

*This account is a dramatised summary of the story told by the real life “Lewis” who shared it with me in early 2019. The dialogue and events are as close to his recollection as possible and occurred in 2017.

The video linked below, which accompanies this article, examines the some of the distinct difficulties autistic people encounter both finding and staying in employment with ideas about how opportunities and outcomes could be improved.

 

Find videos & more at

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. When you think what it would be like to have a log­ical fault­a­bility of court deci­sions? And using it, to be able to fault the exis­tence of unfair court costs too?
    Then you won’t be sur­prised at all to hear, that an unre­futed cae for exis­tence of those things actu­ally does exist, and has been ignored for 20 years. By the media, and by many big organ­i­sa­tions whose own causes would ben­efit from it. courtchange.wordpress.com/the-court-change-or-the-non-finality-situation/
    If the link causes WordPress’s algo­rithm to matk this com­ment as spam, that will show another way that such things get kept hidden from us.

  2. Thanks Quinn for this excel­lent article about the com­plete lack of psy­cho­log­ical safety for autistic people and the level of dis­crim­i­na­tion in most work­places.

    Over the last three years I have been run­ning a number of work­shops on psy­cho­log­ical safety and work­place cul­ture at con­fer­ences in the soft­ware industry and in the health­care sector. Experiences like the one you describe are far too common.

    A number of years ago I wit­nessed how an autistic col­league and com­pe­tent team member was dis­missed on the spot for bringing an autistic level of hon­esty to work. There was no prior dis­cus­sion what­so­ever. The local busi­ness unit man­ager simply called in secu­rity and our col­league was escorted out of the building. A few months later when my con­sulting engage­ment with the organ­i­sa­tion ended, the same man­ager told me that he’d never work with me again, without offering any expla­na­tion. I sus­pect for very sim­ilar rea­sons.

    Autistic people are often bul­lied or dis­missed, not because of a lack of per­for­mance, but due to deep domain exper­tise and vis­ibly supe­rior per­for­mance that is per­ceived as threat­ening by supe­riors and col­leagues. Other “good rea­sons” for dis­missal are refusal to par­tic­i­pate in the social power games at work or refusal to per­form work to unac­cept­ably low stan­dards to save costs.

  3. This is so ter­ribly dis­tressing … yet so totally believ­able.

    I was not diag­nosed until I was 50 — although when I was young as 8 I had a teacher who told my par­ents that I “didn’t think like other children”.The day before my 25th birthday, after years of being bul­lied at school and ostracised at uni­ver­sity for “being dif­ferent”, I went to work for a large organ­i­sa­tion which I will name — the Inland Revenue.

    I worked in the head office at Somerset House, and it was a won­derful place to work. The office was more diverse than any­thing I had ever know, and people who were “dif­ferent” (in any number of ways) were not merely tol­er­ated, but were accepted for who and what they were. All that mat­tered was if you were doing a good job or not. I was, and I thrived. I was reg­u­larly given the highest appraisal mark­ings.

    And then, in 2005, came the merger between the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise to create HM Revenue & Customs … and the cli­mate changed. Slowly and imper­cep­tibly at first, but then it gained ever increasing momentum as a new nar­ra­tive entered the work­place. New man­age­ment was lay­ered on top of us, and they were seem­ingly only inter­ested in cre­ating an organ­i­sa­tion in their own image, staffed by their own mini-mes and cor­po­rate clones. My appraisal grades began to slide, first to the merely “accept­able” cat­e­gory, and then to the “inad­e­quate per­former” box. What had changed in the way I did my job? Nothing. Everyone I worked with and for still said I was doing an excel­lent job; but my man­agers said oth­er­wise. They began to find faults with my per­son­ality. My face didn’t fit any more. They told me what I had to change to get an accept­able per­for­mance appraisal, and I did every­thing they asked and more — but each time they came up with some­thing new and dif­ferent to crit­i­cise me for.

    In the end, I had had enough. It was destroying my self esteem, and my mental health. I began having panic attacks on the way to work, and finally I gave up. I threw in the towel, walked away, and re-trained for a new career.

    Looking back, every single thing they held against me was simply a man­i­fes­ta­tion of my autism, in one form or another. At that time, though, I still didn’t know I was autistic, and I didn’t know that I had the “dis­ability dis­crim­i­na­tion” card avail­able to me. Would it have made any dif­fer­ence if I had known? I doubt it. What would have been the point, even if it had suc­ceeded? All that would have meant was con­tin­uing to work in an increas­ingly toxic envi­ron­ment, which was destroying my mental health and well-being.

    I am glad I left.

    I am much hap­pier now.

  4. In ret­ro­spect, I really think the one time I was out­right fired was because they delib­er­ately set me up to fail so they’d have an excuse.

  5. Poor Lewis. I’m pretty sure what that com­pany did to him was illegal, even if there’s no proof. This was 100% wrong.

    Diversity includes dis­ability.

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